Cold Reading

Definition: A communication technique in which one person (the reader) elicits information from another person (the subject or sitter) without that person's awareness. The reader may use the information to gain the subject's trust, or to convince the subject that the reader knows more about the subject than they actually do.

The exact meaning of cold reading varies depending on the circumstance:

Cognitive Bias - the heart of cold reading

Before learning about cold reading it is useful to understand what is meant by cognitive bias. This is a term used in psychology to describe common flaws in human perception, memory and decision-making. There are dozens of well-documented types of cognitive bias, and most people are susceptible to most types (though they may deny it, which itself is a form of cognitive bias).

Some common examples:

By understanding cognitive bias, frauds can manipulate cold readings so the subject perceives (and later recalls) events inaccurately, i.e. in the way the reader dictates.

How Cold Readings Work

A good cold reader calls upon an array of skills. There is no short answer to "how it works" because there are so many different techniques involved. This is one reason that cold reading is so powerful—by using a combination of techniques it is much more difficult to spot the underlying methodology.

Let us begin with a simple example of one technique. A typical cold reading might include the following conversation:

After the reading the subject is likely to recall that the reader "knew about Mark", when in fact the reader had simply guessed a couple of common letters. The reader didn't even mention anything about a person's name—the subject naturally assumed that the letter would apply to a person. If this didn't work out and there had been no response from the subject, the reader could have continued with something like "I think it's a place name, or maybe some significant event...". In most cases the subject will unwittingly cooperate until a match is found. Note that the subject supplies all the information, the reader just guesses and guides the conversation accordingly.

In the example above, the reader was probably hoping to score an extra "hit" by identifying the death as sudden or accidental ("tragic"), which would be a reasonable guess if the subject was fairly young and the deceased was a friend. If the guess was right, it would be interpreted as a significant hit ("she knew about the accident"). In our example the guess was wrong but the subject simply overlooked it. In this way the reader can continue making subtle guesses without the subject realizing how many misses are happening.

Even when the subject does recognize a miss, cognitive bias means the miss has a good chance of being forgotten quickly. Facts which the brain interprets as less relevant are less likely to be committed to memory. People tend to forget misses and remember hits because the hits are subconsciously deemed to be the "relevant" part of the conversation. This is why subjects almost always rate readings as being far more accurate than they really were.

20 Questions: From General to Specific

Cold readings are essentially a sophisticated form of the game "20 Questions", in which a person must guess an answer by beginning with general questions and gradually narrowing down the possibilities. For example:

Obviously a cold reading should not seem like a guessing game, so the questions are phrased differently. The subject supplies answers without realizing. For example:

In this way the reader begins with a very generic starting point (music) and narrows the conversation down to a specific memory. Most people know someone who plays an instrument or has a strong appreciation of music. Once someone is identified, it's just a case of extracting a couple of key facts and expanding on them.

Turning Misses to Hits

Another popular tactic is to take a miss but make it seem like it was a hit all along. For example, if the reader says "I sense an upcoming vacation", the subject may respond negatively and recognize the miss. To avoid this, the statement is put in such a way that it could be either positive or negative. For example:

The alternative would be:

Hot Readings

The opposite of a cold reading is a hot reading. In this case the reader has discovered information about the subject in advance. Using Google, all the reader really needs to know is the subject's name and they can have a wealth of information before the reading takes place.


Cold reading is not an easy skill, but once mastered it is very powerful. It utilizes known weaknesses in the way almost all people think. It works equally well on intelligent people (in fact it arguably works better on them) and above all, it is remarkably simple in its concept. Just like stage magic, cold readings rely on the fact that the truth is so simple it is usually overlooked as a possibility.

Remember, to conduct a successful cold reading: